Martin Young
Martin Young

Gareth Cliff, religion and thinking things through

I caught sight of a celebrity tweet several days ago, carrying all the hallmarks of a Gareth Cliff tweet — inflammatory, incendiary and poking fun at someone. The stream of tweets in reply did not disappoint. Cliff of course knew exactly what he was doing, and that he would get a mixed response of supporters and detractors. I’m sure he enjoyed both equally, and that the online criticism was water off a duck’s back. His tweet will have done him no harm whatsoever.

GarethCliff Tweet1

Cliff and I can probably agree on many things about religion, differing only on whether a God exists and is active in our world or not. As detractors are quick to point out, religion has undoubtedly brought episodic harm into the world (I agree), but the same detractors choose to ignore the substantial good done by religious organisations and individuals. The good and harm either way are always the result of human action or inaction, and it would be churlish to blame God or other gods for it all. I see the practice of “religion” as being the imperfect actions of men, human interpretations of divine guidance subject to the same pitfalls and perils of human existence. In other words, don’t blame God for religious people or their actions.

I have no intention of trying to defend God any further or argue his existence here — there is no convincing any person over issues of belief by argument. But Cliff’s tweet had me thinking about a conference just past at which he was a VIP speaker, and which carried as provocative a title as his persona.

“Thinking things through” was the conference title, and the programme clearly indicated a “free thinking” agenda. I wish I could have gone. I enjoy reasoned debate and intelligent argument, and I am very interested in what the speakers had to say. I probably would agree with all the scientific evidence certain to have been presented as to why society no longer needs God to explain anything factual about the Earth, universe and everything in between, but instead I would have come to a different conclusion.

As for the organisers’ choice of title, I don’t think they have truly “thought things through”. It is a misleading suggestion that only they and the free-thinking lobby they represent have put a modicum of intellectual effort into the great questions of life: “Where did we come from, why are we here, and what happens to us when we die?” It’s a rude way of saying “we’re right, and they (the theists) are all wrong”.

To state one has really “thought things through” implies a comprehensive understanding and analysis of all the eccentricities of consciousness, reality, the origin and structure of matter and the universe, comprehension of what existed before and outside its margins, with explanations of every aberration and unusual phenomenon. I don’t think anyone can do that. We don’t know even a fraction of it, and the more we do know, the more there is to learn.

Many theists do not have to go through any process of self-rationalisation and reconciliation of the world they see around them with their beliefs. It’s a happy place to be, although I would agree with Cliff and others that people like this are more easily led into religious activities that are harmful.

Scientifically educated converts to belief in a God have to do the reconciliation between doctrine, theology and science to preserve a bit of sanity, and here is where it can get interesting. I find my inspiration from the same sources as the free thinkers, ie from scientific discovery. So the question changes from “How does this information contradict my beliefs?” to “How does this fit in with my theology?”

So it is greatly exciting to learn of the new scientific theories out there, one example among many being that of there being an infinite number of parallel universes. If this theory is true, anything you can possibly imagine has to exist in a universe somewhere, and therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists and Dawkins is wrong. And one universe has to be the very best of universes and another the very worst — heaven and hell perhaps? Or that all reality may be a hologram on the event horizon of a super massive black hole. I don’t pretend that I understand all the details, and the theories change and may well be wrong, but the compatibilities between my worldview and beliefs are being reinforced, not being eroded, for these and many other reasons too numerous to mention, by the same information and evidence that free thinkers use to discredit religious beliefs. I have yet to hear one theory or discovery that contradicts my theology.

And so I imagine this conference being a group of highly interesting, highly educated, highly influential people meeting to discuss and agree on the limitations of their own exploring minds and imaginations, staying well within the box of accepted scientific discovery and never daring to venture outside it. All the time, believing that they themselves are the intellectual elite, and that all others are wrong.

I can’t help thinking of the biblical parallel in Genesis 19 for this situation, where men and women were destroyed for causing God offence. Those who read the Bible without understanding critical context make the mistake that this event was due to sexual sin, which had nothing to do with the punishment. The activity so offensive to God was pride and arrogance, the awareness of self as being better than others, the original sin itself.

I don’t think any theists needed to be concerned that the same punishment that befell Sodom and Gomorrah would fall down on Cliff and the others at this conference. God’s anger was assuaged a little under 2000 years ago.

And I’m glad for him. I like the guy.

Tags: , ,

  • The destructive approach to nature: ‘Geostorm’
  • The world has not learnt anything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • Kingsolver’s narrative indictment of colonisation: The Poisonwood Bible
  • Are you an agnostic?
    • The Jocklink

      Lolz aplenty in this post, as a highly educated person criticises highly interesting, highly educated, highly influential people because they are telling others what they should be thinking and then tells them what they should be thinking.

    • Olive

      The only way Gareth Cliff remains relevant is by being supposedly “controversial”. Its all about me, myself and I. Nothing he says or represents is remotely different to what any self serving individual can actually come up with. He probably thinks himself a god therefore requires none. If the father in the sky doesn’t exist why the obsession in trying to dissuade others. I just wish some radio and television presenters can actually just get off their high horses and realize that because they have a public platform doesn’t actually make them better at knowing things than the rest of us. It is just a job like any other job.

    • Martin Young

      Dear Jocklink

      LOLs on my side too:) I don’t think I’m telling anyone what to think. I’m disputing their claim to the intellectual high ground and the perception that they present. 100% belief in being 100% correct is dangerous ground for anybody without very good reason.

      “Pride comes before a fall” is what my mother always said to us.

    • Yaj

      @ Olive, couldn’t agree with you more about Gareth Cliff. Nothing that I have heard him blurting out on the radio has been very inspiring.So far.

    • unhedgedzulu

      This is yet another pathetic attempt by a theist to justify irrational beliefs and to vilify those pointing this out. You’ve basically just said that your religion works retroactively, so when scientists make a discovery your religion takes the credit for it. Pathetic! You then go on to talk about M-theory (which exists within the field Theoretical Physics) as somehow confirming your beliefs even though the theory says nothing about the metaphysical nature of those universes(because its theoretical).The theory hasn’t been accepted into mainstream science theory because no evidence for it has been found and yet in your eagerness to find any excuse to believe, you use it as “scientific” confirmation of your beliefs. Then you say you haven’t found a single theory that contradicts your belief?really? you haven’t heard of the theory of evolution?Because from your last sentence you clearly think the earth is 6000 years old. How do you reconcile the belief in a young earth with evolution, abiogenesis, cosmology?If you did draw inspiration from the same sources as the free thinkers, i can pretty much bet that you wouldn’t believe in things without evidence or any good reasons. I dont think you though this article through chief.
      @The Jocklink, explain to me where the free society institute is telling people what to think?The talk was about the process of thinking.Assumptions made, information received, deductive and syllogistic logic, and reaching reasonable, logical…

    • Thapelo

      Thank you for this article. I am thankful to God for the gift of believing in Him as my Father through my Saviour Jesus Christ.I think respect for each other’s beliefs should underpin religious discussions. Unfortunately mostly those who engage in such do so with arrogance n sense of exclusive claim to the truth. It is sad that atheists always have to launch an attack on those who believe in God. They pose as the only intellectuals. And this is intolerable.

    • Derek

      Gareth who??

    • Grant

      I agree with Gareth Cliff’s tweet. It takes an uncomfortable and confrontational statement to affect change and to make you think. There will be those who are offended. They should ask themselves why they are offended exactly. If they are offended because someone dares to question their belief, they are living in the past. Belief will be questioned going forweard, this is the age we live in. Get used to it. If they are offended because an Athiest has belittled their faith with humour, they should remember that much of their religion makes very little logical sense and as such is prone to humour.

      Religion no longer has automatic respect. I respect people but I do not respect religion. I try but I also battle to respect people who believe as Muslims do that I am unclean or as Christians do that I will go to hell and burn. They look down on me institutionally and as such I full endorse Gareth Cliff’s right to look back down on you even though I try my best not to.

    • Sarah Britten

      I attended the conference, not because I am interested in debates between religion and science but because I am interested in the challenge of thinking things through – something very few actually do (the Melissa Bachman issue was a fine example of how egocentric emotion trumps reason and tolerance). It would have been good if you were there, Martin, because you would have brought a different perspective. Despite statements about trying not to be smug, the conference was rather smug because nobody really challenged the prevailing assumptions around “nonsensical beliefs” and dissuading people from them by using the power of scientific evidence and peer-reviewed fact. I tried to make a point about how nuanced lived experience actually is but it fell hopelessly flat. In the end, it sounded like a bunch of atheists motivating for some sort of movement to overcome religion, and the real challenge – which remains exactly that, to think things through – somehow got missed. Ah well, next time.

    • Dugald

      Mr Young, I found this both fascinating and fun. The leisurely pace made it truly enjoyable. This well-balanced piece is much appreciated.

    • Trevor

      Its sad how popular persons, talk show hosts, DJ’s and so on imagine themselves worthy of attention in areas other than their very limited field. Sad too, how many folk are eager to hear their views. Too often they are bombastic persons – over-inflated with self-importance. The latter, of all people, are to be pitied.

    • Charlie

      Interesting read. In it you said, “I have yet to hear one theory or discovery that contradicts my theology.” Maybe you should be concerned about the lack of a scientific discovery of god/s. Look at it this way, if a deity interacts with our world, and is as powerful as it’s followers would have us believe, then surly by now we would have made a scientific discovery by now. If the deity does not interact with the world then no one can know anything about it. Being a christian the question you should be asking is why has God not been discovered.

    • Matt Black

      Hi Martin. I was at the conference, so I feel suitably qualified to comment.
      The entire day was spent unpacking the idea that we, as high-level beings (humans, not the atheist bunch) need to look at all possible evidence on a range of topics and ask questions. This can be ‘is there a God?’ or ‘is fracking for shale gas safe?’
      The idea is that our society just accepts that some things are or aren’t so, and that is just it. Nuclear power provides a neat example, as it is an incredibly safe way to generate power, yet hysteria and Cherobyl-style worries have overtaken us so we immediately discard it as an idea.
      We need to look at all the theories, even ones about parallel universes and see how they stand up to the evidence we have available.

      Just remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

      Sincerely yours
      Matt. An Agnostic.

    • Martin Young

      Dear unhedgedzulu

      I believe in evolution, as do many Christian leaders. I see the process as conforming to a Biblical truth and not contradicting it, i.e. God’s work through DNA. Read Francis Collins – DNA, the Language of God.

      And I have not put all my eggs into one basket by one theory as you suggest – there are many other exciting examples.

      So your comment expresses your own ignorant prejudices about all people who profess to have faith in a deity. How is this different to racism or sexism or any other ‘ism?’

      Religious people who deny scientific discovery are perhaps just as at fault of not thinking things through, and I made reference to that in the post. Unless of course something comes up to challenge the whole theory anyway, and I don’t expect it to.

      I’m not offended by Gareth Cliff’s tweet in any way, and for the record choose not to think negatively about those who are committed atheists – the cliché “Some of my best friends etc.” firmly applies here.

      What is happening in science is that two groups of people are looking at the same evidence and drawing opposite conclusions – something criminal lawyers do all the time for a living. There is evidence available if you choose to believe it and accept it.

      And here ‘choice’ is the operative word. There are many people who inherently believe in a God but choose not to admit it or follow the faith – always has been like that and always will, whether there is incontrovertible evidence or not..

    • unhedgedzulu

      Hi Martin
      Thanks for the response. “I believe in evolution, as do many Christian leaders. I see the process as conforming to a Biblical truth and not contradicting it, i.e. God’s work through DNA. Read Francis Collins – DNA, the Language of God” how would you know this? on faith? This is my exact problem with religion, science discovers, religion takes the credit. Even if i were to agree with you on the existence of a deity(If it were proved that something out there exists), how on earth could you claim with certainty it is the christian god as you understand it? how on earth could differentiate between yours and those who say allah or ahura mazda created dna? Because you’ve read the bible, you create a nonexistent link between god and DNA. In the middle east its allah and DNA, you cant all be right.Why not be honest and say you dont know and end it there?faith is not and never will be and indicator of truth.”So your comment expresses your own ignorant prejudices about all people who profess to have faith in a deity. How is this different to racism or sexism or any other ‘ism?’- This is a sweeping generalisation since i was only addressing you and the point you made about MTheory, also how exactly is this prejudice?that would denote an unfavourable feeling and negative judgements towards those with faith. While i am revolted by your religion, never would that make me prejudiced against those with religious beliefs nor would i disrespect your right to believe it…

    • Martin Young


      Billions of people all over the world have discovered God. Intimately. Personally. With testimonies to support their discovery. That these discoveries have no reducible, analysable substance to them that can be poked and prodded does not negate them. So our science does not have a category to include research of this nature to provide the proof someone looking from the outside needs.

      It depends completely on what you, a sceptic, would consider as evidence, and what criteria you would apply to exclude evidence of a certain nature.

      Another interesting question is, “What evidence would satisfy the sceptic community? What would the nature thereof be? The Second Coming?”

      Rupert Sheldrake wrote a very interesting book called The Science Delusion – it’s worth a read. I don’t agree with all his stuff – some of it is silly, but at least he asks the right questions.

    • Humanrace365

      @ Martin Young – You are correct in many things that you have said. Just because religion and science have been polar opposites in the past, does not mean that we all have to follow that thinking in this day and age. With several religions following a central theme based on morals, values and ethics, the challenge for the last few hundred of years has been the interpretation of the “word” itself. Interpretting every thing literally has been the bane of the world.
      Personally many have gone through the battle where initially bought into explaining everything using scientific big bang theories. years later, after reading wads of scientific research, I have realised that religion (I should rather say spirituality) and science cannot be mutually exclusive. Concepts like intelligent design demonstrates that science is the methods used to “create”. If there is a “god”, he is the greatest scientist. I do believe that the ultimate creator – a force of spiritual intent to sustain life – does not look like us in any way. My opinion is that as humans, we are not made in gods image. As humans, we are not that significant in the grander scheme of things. Highest on the food chain today, but not the only species that is loved by Him. Concepts like love, beauty, aesthetics, pain, anxiety, the will for living organisms to live and ensure that their species survive cannot be explained as pure science. The proportions and ratios on earth is all too convenient and to be explained by…

    • Humanrace365

      If one looks at the ratio of predators to prey, the density of atmosphere, the complexity of micro amoeba and macro solar systems, galaxies etc. there are many patterns in the randomness. Until we find another planet that sustains life, it might seem that earth is the “chosen one”. But again, it’s likely that there are other plants that sustains life. Only if the earth is the same size, has a similar moon, similar distance from their sun, will life there resemble ours. Unlikely to say the least. Who is to say that Science, “God”, Aliens etc. should be an either or type of thing. If you look closely, one can see the cohesion. As human beings our Consciousness , whilst allowing us to question our purpose is not developed to even begin to understand our place in this universe. It is plausible then that there is some force, a force that fuels the intent for life to “want” to thrive and adapt. This force is not watching over us as “god” lovers like to believe, but it is omnipresent, all around us for eternity. Why else do cells split up and replicate so perfectly and morph into different biological structures etc. Why does living organisms WANT to live and WANT to breed. DNA, yes, but why is DNA so perfect. Darwinian theories and big bang creationism theories are not opposed to believing in intelligent design driven by a force that sustains life in the most weirdest of conditions. THERE IS ORDER AMIDST THE RANDOMNESS. we just have to look for it and it is there to see…

    • MW

      “And so I imagine this conference being a group of highly interesting, highly educated, highly influential people meeting to discuss and agree on the limitations of their own exploring minds and imaginations, staying well within the box of accepted scientific discovery and never daring to venture outside it. All the time, believing that they themselves are the intellectual elite, and that all others are wrong.”

      Clearly dear writer, you are a minnow in the pool of philosophical debate for it is logically correct that the burden of proof rests on the claimant.

      This means that the “intellectual elite” as you so wryly put it are in fact quite right and until reasonable evidence to the contrary is presented, then all others are indeed wrong.


    • @NATE_IV_SA

      Thanks Martin for a brilliant article. I love following former evolutionists’s blogs. They are the ones with more ammo. What I mostly love is the reasons/circumstances that converted them to theism:

      “I was looking at my wife’s face and I wondered, why eyebrows?”

      “I visited the museum and was intrigued by T-rex’s short arms.”

      These are queries easily addressed (read glossed over) by “mountain of peer reviewed thesis” where broad reference like “one scientist with so-and-so credentials SUGGESTED…” or “it is THOUGHT…” is heavily used.

      If God said he’ll use base things of this world to manifest Himself I doubt science is the first on the list.

    • @NATE_IV_SA

      “The fine tuning of the universe is the extraordinary balancing of the fundamental laws and parameters of physics and the initial conditions of our universe. It’s almost as if the most unimaginably exacting dial was set for each and every law of nature, and relationships of matter that would allow for the formation and existence of life. The astounding fine tuning are simply too amazing to have been the result of blind luck. Over the past 30 years or so, scientists have discovered that just about everything involved with the basic structure of the universe is balanced on a razors edge for life to exist. And, the physical laws of nature are constant. In other words, the speed of light will not change over time. The force of gravity remains the same. If it could change, life could not depend on gravity. And, with only minor changes, life could not exist.”

    • Momma Cyndi

      I have read Hawkins and Greene and do not presume to pretend to fully understand either.

      Brought up in an extra religious household, but cursed with a questioning mind, I came to the conclusion that religion was a man made crutch. I fully and completely accept the choice of my siblings to hang onto their religion but I simply don’t buy into it. It is (in my mind) simply a version of throwing a virgin into the volcano to appease the ‘spirits’.

      Then we come to the ‘but the devil made me do it’ and ‘it is god’s will’ lot. It is probably them which put me off religion for life – the complete and utter lack of personal responsibility. Anyone who needs to beg, cajole, nag, blame or credit a deity for everything is just irrational. If you run across the highway and a car hits you, it is because you are an idiot – it is not because the highway is bewitched or bedeviled. If you survive being hit, it is because a legion of health workers were well educated, well equipped and caring – it is not because a god suddenly started looking out for you (now where was he when you got hit or got the daft idea to run across the highway?)

      Give me the option of a good surgeon or a prayer and I will pick the good surgeon every time

    • Jeffrey Jones

      “…I believe in evolution, as do many Christian leaders. I see the process as conforming to a Biblical truth and not contradicting it, i.e. God’s work through DNA.”
      Scientifically proven evolution contains no reference to God. Christians trying to put “God” into scientific proofs are not talking about evolution as determined by science, they are merely making religious projections onto a scientific theory, which has been proven by almost all branches of science. No “God” necessary.
      Francis Collins views are not those of 95% of the American Academy of Sciences.

    • Jeffrey Jones

      “…Billions of people all over the world have discovered God. Intimately. Personally. With testimonies to support their discovery.”
      Personal anecdotes are not scientific proof of a god. I have discovered Santa Claus, he has appeared to me personally and even brought me gifts – unfortunately, I have no further proof than my say so.
      Man saved from tsunami – it’s a miracle. Forty thousand die in same tsunami – “God” gets no credit for the latter – funny that.

    • proactive

      ….has it been carefully “thought through” to let an idol judge like “GC” share the same platform with the other distinguished seven and entrust the responsibility to publicly elaborate about religion etc to a character like him?

      Seeing his so “intelligent tweet”- surely, wisdom & humbleness did not enter his orbit yet! Demonstrating once more his knowledge and high IQ by spoiling real innocent children the dream over Father Christmas & the Easter bunny- only alive for just a few wonderful years! Any votes taken?

      A pity the speakers were not judged and humiliated by a vitriolic panel/judge a la “GC”.

    • Policat

      How does one reconcile religion and science?
      Science relies on diligent peer review and empirical evidence to substantiate its claims whereas religion has been plagued by human influenced doctrines that have been recorded over centuries by a multitude of diverse theistic groups, hence the fragmentation and assortment of the belief systems competing for dominance, and the reliance of faith to perpetuate their existence. Faith cannot be scientifically quantified.
      Perhaps science must leave faith to the faithful but the faithful must also leave science to science and use the fruits of its discoveries with respect for its inventors.
      Logic will never prevail when the heart rules the head.

    • Policat

      Just a thought on aliens.
      Should we follow evolutionary principles life forms must permeate the universe and be in abundance as the ingredients for life are not confined to this planet but are visible throughout the cosmos. Presently we humans rule this planet and communication with intelligent alien entities can only occur when we push the right buttons and our evolutionary clocks are in alignment with each other. Our inability to make extra-terrestrial contact is either they are not as advanced or are too advanced for our for our current search tools to successfully contact them. This of course reduces the odds of making contact considerably.

    • Charlie

      A while back I was explaining to my sister why the Higgs had got the nickname of the God Particle. I explained that it was a theoretical particle that should be there but until then had not been found, a bit like God. Her response, which I still find faintly amusing, was that God is easy to find. This in a way sums up the problem, the religious will always say that they have found god/s while the sceptic will be saying pull the other one it’s got bells on.

      So you have this all powerful, all seeing god who is just fabulous and awe inspiring, just one little problem, he/she/it is very shy and can never appear to more than one person at a time, and then never in person. Ok that could sound a bit harsh but that is basically what you are telling me when you say, “Billions of people all over the world have discovered God. Intimately. Personally.”

      As to the evidence that a sceptic would accept how about objective, observable and repeatable evidence?

      I’ll have a look for The Science Delusion on the weekend.

    • Martin Young


      It’s an interesting and thought provoking read – for quick summary watch this talk of his for TED which was subsequently removed as being too ‘unscientific’.

      It’s interesting that he got a standing ovation by all sound of things.

      Theists are often accused of being narrow-minded. My assertion is that one can be a theist who is extremely broad minded and embraces both scientific discovery and religious doctrine without compromising either. It involves looking for another kind of truth to that expected of either.

      This is a different way of looking at the world and, on a personal note, one that is awe inspiring.

    • Skumbuzo

      @Charlie…..maybe, just maybe we’re not as clever as we may think!

    • Martin Young

      Charlie and MW

      I find it helpful to look at patterns of nature and to extrapolate them to questions of a spiritual nature. In my experience, skeptics find this practice extremely annoying and I don’t know why that should be.

      A good example is the belief that we can’t find 95% of the universe. It is ‘missing’ – assumed to be dark matter and dark energy. There has been no success in identifying, seeing or discovering this mysterious stuff. We believe it exists because the visible and observable universe behaves in certain ways.

      I could say exactly the same about God – that he exists because of observations about the universe and the way the world is that are highly suggestive, without ever having recourse to the ‘evidence’ that you would want as a view-changing proof.

      You may argue that we just haven’t found a way to determine scientifically the presence of dark matter yet.

      I could say the same for God.

    • @NATE_IV_SA


      The atheist lot has iron-clad terms and conditions that a deity SHOULD adhere to or else they hold back their “approval”.

      Didn’t Christ thank God for hiding His mysteries from the prudent?

      Israel once wanted Moses to democratice communication channels between himself and God. They were gathered to the mountain and we know what happened. Thus, He decreed how people will know if a prophet is a bogus or not. Meaning, there’ll be a lot claiming to come God.

      Whenever people ask me, but how can one know amidst such confusion. Simply, “my sheep will hear my voice.”

      Of course the critical has a lot to say about my “warped” logic. There have been people throughout the Bible who asked the right questions doubting God. They were not given what they want: two theives at the cross. The other theif (who was ignored) would’ve been a bestseller in our time whose book is incisive and cuts through the religiocity…etc etc

      To them, God is a president whom you can crit whichever you want cause He’s after those approval ratings. They ignore the spiritual implications of what’s going on the grand scale.

    • Sydney Daniel

      To believe that the code in DNA, the complex human brain developed by chance through the process of ‘natural selection’ requires ridiculous faith called blind faith.
      It actually requires more faith than faith in God. So my belief in the Bible and the God of the Bible is rock solid.

    • Smish Outlaw

      1. If the theory of an infinite number of universes is true, you can infer that anything is possible. How do you figure that doc? (I noted the disclaimer).

      2. Unless you are being ironic, I don’t see the point of God’s anger being assuaged 2000 years ago as being valid, isn’t he timeless.

    • Ricardo

      Dear Martin,

      I’m actually astounded by the fact that you have read Dr. Collin’s book. I thought that I was the only one interested in the relationship between faith and religion here in SA :)

      I take a very similar stance to yours. I have read much about Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the like, and have been unimpressed with their arguments against the existence of God.

      I do not wish to generalise, and succumb to the fallacy of building my own straw man, but the main issue that I draw from the arguments from atheists that I have encountered is the fact that they cannot reconcile scientific evidence with philosophy. Whenever I bring up the argument of reason or morality, they seem to dismiss them as simply being “philosophical wibblings”.

      Anyway, awesome post. Hope to read more from you on this topic :)